The Love Market: Chapter Five

A base is where all the men and women who work for our army live. The work they do isn’t like what I have to do or what I’d have to do there. But, mister… Peter says that someone should be over there and will need to be there to help them in the way people in the House help. He says war is coming again, worse this time than ever before. I don’t know what war is; it was never used in anything I learned on the screen or from Peter, but with how he talked of it, I thought it wasn’t good. The way his face changed when I asked was as though he had just seen a storm rolling in, and he was too far from shelter.”

The crowds were mixed and mingled; folks with Star Foods badges on their lapel grunted and grimaced with their fellows from Yancy’s Metal Works. There were men and women who knew how to run industrial lathes, forklift operators, foremen, entry-level, hard hats, decontam suits, food, metal, wood, and chemical. All the industrial workers from every plant in the city were congregated around the loading dock of Dahl. That was all of those who were still around.

Possibly the only transit for folks who didn’t have connections or weren’t in the Love Market were the trains. None of them cut across the surface of the country anymore but were deep underground to cut costs and maintenance. They could take you from any city in the union to another, but closer akin to when there had been a Union and Confederacy in the ancient past, it was a luxury item. A month of rent in her flat was what it would cost Piper to get outside of the neighboring states. That pricing had kept people from taking the plunge, but some still did, without any prospect of work wherever they were going. As far Piper could tell, with those coming and those going, there wasn’t much work anywhere anymore.

Fatimah trembled a bit with her hands tucked deep under her burkha and one of Piper’s borrowed coats, this one reading East Valley Lumber, “They don’t expect us to work out here, do they?”

“No, Dahl is textiles; we’d be inside. They just have too many people here, probably not enough work,” Piper muttered but realized the error the second a man with a cleft pallet beside her roused to her answer.

The furied man from Star Foods twisted about and shouted, “Not enough work! Y’all here that Dahl doesn’t got work either!”

“Hey, shut it, doc, we ain’t know that yet,” Kris called back as he pulled the two women closer to himself. Despite his delicate features and doughy body, the man was braver than half so many people Piper knew, certainly more than Gregor. She could imagine Gregor folding beneath the fear of what the deformed man might do to his less-than-intriguing looks. ‘Maybe,’ Piper considered, ‘He just doesn’t have enough to lose to care what happens.’ 

The other washout from Star Foods gave Kristoff one look before swiveling back around to spread his palms before the makeshift fire pit. Piper smiled up at Kris, who, with another singed-up butt of a cigarette, grinned pleasantly back. Then, she pulled Fatimah close to whisper over the rabble, “These folks are all really tense, ok? None of us, not that guy, Kris, or even me, have anything to fall back on. Some of these people have a few possessions, maybe a house they inherited, or children, but any of that will only last them so long without work. I know you don’t want to run the Markets, but you have that ability where the rest of us don’t, so we have to be quiet and watch what we say.”

A hush began falling over the crowd as Piper reprimanded her charge. Standing with an armed guard beside him on the loading dock was Herman Dahl Junior, the plant’s current owner. There wasn’t an ounce of softness in his grim set features, and if he didn’t scowl, he projected the aura of disapproval at many jobless individuals. His guard was not far off from this expression; however, she looked more than willing and ready to start putting rounds in the first rowdy clot of prospective employees. Dahl was clearly in the money, Piper thought, as she took stock of the guard’s rifle, and knew that the bolt-action function was not a mark of poverty or a vintage affectation but was, in fact, the newest armament that government manufacturers were turning out to flip the script on our enemies.

The new Caspar-077s’ bullets were lethal to the point that even those around the target were likely to be offed in one shot. They were dense rubber packages meant to detonate on contact with any surface. From there, instead of a metallic load or even a flammable compound being exuded on the target, the victim was coated in acid. A heavily weaponized caustic compound that was safe on the rubber of its casing would unleash and devour whoever was unlucky enough to be in the crosshairs. The 077s were not sniper rifles, but almost like a shotgun, fantastic at close range but still effective within a few more yards than that. The notion of even one bullet being loosed today put Piper on edge and should have, she figured, gotten everyone else stirred up if only they were aware enough of the threat.

Herman Dahl had a bullhorn which he had concealed behind his back. Now he raised it to the sky, “I have been given word that all of you fine ladies and gentlemen have come looking for work. Looking to Dahl in these dark times as so many have in decades past, as our country did at the front of the war. You’ve come to us as so many came to my father and his father, looking for a way to contribute to the community, to the country, and put bread on the table for you and yours,” they were in the palm of his hand as his forced kindly smile took a sardonic edge, “And just like all those masses before you, you’re all also dumb as dirt and just as easy to step on. There’s no work here, barely any contracts, enough to keep the lights on and the oven hot. It’s a damned recession, the economy has flatlined, and we don’t have the means to support you any better than your former employers. If a single one of you took your last three paychecks and put them in textiles or any product produced in this country instead of the Market, instead of in your veins, then maybe we’d still have contracts. Now you all have about, let’s say, fifteen seconds before I ask Viola to open up on you.”

At this, the crowd began to surge but the direction was inconsistent and caused shoving and landed blows. The men behind Piper and her friends shoved forward while Kris shoved back, keeping the two women in front of him, serving as a shield. Though some of the Star Foods workers poured past his bulk, the one who had lashed out at Piper leapt on Kris. A glint of metal, barely longer than a thumb, appeared in his hand. Regardless of the size, he tried to plant the object in Kris’s eyes. Piper jolted forward and jerked the man forward by his arm, toppling him to the cement, which rose quickly to strike the back of his head. A pool of blood began to flow over the silver fork, probably the man’s only utensil, but before any of the three could mention it, a shot rang out.

In the middle of the pack, waves ebbed and flowed from the dock, some trying to leave and caught while others attempted to rush the platform. None found access, streamers of smoke snaked up into the icy breeze with cries of commotion. Even from afar, a certain warmth could be felt even by Piper as a select group of prospective workers were melting into puddles of gore. Those around them had frozen where they were not patting themselves down, looking for any newly forming holes from a wayward splatter of acid. Not one of them paid heed to the woman who had fired the deadly shot and were all the more foolish for not bothering to take note as she chambered the next round. A second blast took those at the front, the scores who had fought their way up and those who had been early to come to Dahl that morning. From the back, Piper could make out only so much, but as the mass of panicking folk parted for a second, it was as though she were looking at an anatomical model of the human skeleton, yet discolored to sickly brown.

The very sight of the devastation that could be wrought with one bullet was enough to set Piper’s mind thousands of miles away. She was made to wonder how many men and women were facing such deadly ordinances every day on the front lines. Worse still, she couldn’t begin to fathom what an enemy facing such malicious weapons would turn to in desperation. Today’s arms race was now something more crude and grotesque than barbarous hordes striking down foes with crude cudgels and rusted edges. To think anyone would employ such a vulgar means of dispatching with another human was beyond her reckoning, as was movement then. With Kris and even Fatimah’s aid, Piper was pulled through the bedlam until they had made it nearly back to Boldwins.

Day may have been pressing on, but so did those dull and heavy winter clouds exuding now a denser storm of lighter fluff. Removed from the scene at Dahl’s, the world grew silent and lonely once more, even with two companions. Finally, after catching his breath and burning through a few more discarded cigarettes, Kris sighed, “Well, I’ll catch you both later. Let me know if you find work, and I’ll keep my ear to the ground for the same.”

“Thanks, Kris. I think we’re going to talk to Gregor and see if he’s heard anything. Did you want to come with?”

His look was skeptical, “He and I aren’t quite chummy, but good luck with him. Hope he wasn’t down at Dahl’s.”

As he waddled away in his heavy parka, Piper wondered if she’d ever see Kris again or if he was going to leave the city. She had heard it from him before, but there was no telling if the man was all talk or if he followed through with his ideas. She hoped, foremost of any wish for the man, that he wouldn’t end it all, not just yet, not when the news they got from the front said we were so close.

There were too many people who couldn’t hold out, and she couldn’t blame them anymore, looking into the bleakness that was the future. Without work, there was more strain all around. Stores wouldn’t carry certain foods again, homes and apartments would sit empty, and the penniless masses would congregate in the parks and open spaces begging for someone to step up and do something. It had been bad before. Piper had watched her parents dwindle to nothing in that summer, that last summer of innocents and warmth. For a time, the recession abated, and supplies began to flow into the cities; things seemed to shape up. Then mother passed, and father exited not long after her. Piper thought brighter days were ahead; her parents had suffered long without relief. She had a home, food, and a little extra money for those few luxuries that could still be bought in those times. But the economy began flagging again, and even a new pair of boots were an unnecessary expense. It was all the Market; that’s what Piper knew.

“Are there any other factories on this side of town? Or a grocer, maybe a cafe?”

“What?” Piper understood the question, but she was reasonably certain Fatimah had misspoken or not considered her words.

She pulled her veil past her lips, “Where else can we find work? If there are no factories, the workers will look elsewhere for work. So where are we going to look?”

“Fatimah, how long have you been in the city?”

“One month.”

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